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Indiana Supreme Court Strikes Down Prisoner Frivolous Litigator Law

By John E. Dannenberg

The Indiana Supreme Court held that Indiana's 2004 "Three Strikes Law," which forever barred a prisoner from filing another lawsuit if he had earlier had three prior suits dismissed as frivolous, violated the Open Courts Clause (Article 1, § 12) ("Clause") of the Indiana Constitution.

Eric Smith, proceeding in pro per, sued the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) in November 2005 in superior court alleging injury from excessive force used to subdue him in a confrontation at the maximum-security Westville Correctional Facility. He sought $300,000 in damages plus declaratory and injunctive relief. The court granted the IDOC's motion to dismiss on grounds that Smith had filed and lost three prior frivolous suits and thereby had used up his lifetime allotment of civil filings as a prisoner under the Frivolous Claim Law, Indiana Code § 34-58-2-1. Smith appealed, challenging that statute as unconstitutional under the Clause. While the court of appeal upheld the lower court's dismissal (Smith v. Ind. Dep't of Corr., 853 N.E.2nd 127, 129 (2006)), the Indiana Supreme Court reversed.

The challenged law was intended to "screen and prevent abusive and prolific offender litigation in Indiana." (Smith v. Huckins, 850 N.E.2d 480, 483 (Ind. App. 2006).) A suit may be barred if it is frivolous, has no apparent basis for granting relief or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from liability. It is frivolous if it is primarily to harass a person or lacks an arguable basis in law or fact. The only exception is if the court determines the prisoner is in immediate danger of serious bodily injury.

But the Clause states that "all courts shall be open; and every person, for injury done to him in his person, property or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law. Justice shall be administered freely, and without purchase, and without denial; speedily and without delay." The court of appeal had likened Smith's position to a bar under a statute of limitations.

The Supreme Court looked to the Magna Carta for moral guidance. Indiana courts had earlier held that "any regulation which would virtually deny our citizens the right to resort to this court would necessarily be unreasonable." The court concluded here that the Clause "does not prohibit all conditions to access to the courts, but it does prevent the legislature from arbitrarily or unreasonably denying access to the courts."

While the court observed that the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act has a similar provision which has survived constitutional attack, it held that Indiana's law "sweeps with a broader brush than the law of any other United States jurisdiction because it operates as an indiscriminate statutory ban, not merely a condition to access to the courts." That is, it bars solely on the basis of the number of prior filings without regard to the merits of the claims now presented. The exception for "serious bodily injury" did not cure the defect because prisoners who filed lost-property claims, for example, would be denied court review. Accordingly, the three-justice majority reversed and remanded to the trial court to determine if Smith's newest complaint itself might be frivolous on its face and be dismissed for that reason.

Two dissenting justices lambasted the majority decision as leaving Indiana citizens at the peril of long court delays from limitless frivolous prisoner suits. It called Smith a "poster boy" because he had filed thirteen civil appeals in 2005-2006 alone. See: Smith v. Indiana Department of Corrections, 883 N.E.2d 802 (2008).

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Related legal case

Smith v. Indiana Department of Corrections